ORn 11In January 2016, in the dark, I turned on the radio at 7am and heard the news that David Bowie had died. I quickly changed stations in hopes of finding a parallel universe I was still alive in, but there were only the faltering voices of the hosts holding back tears along with bits of Bowie’s incomparable musical world, collapsing in collective pain.
My first reaction was to magically think, “But he can’t be dead!” Bowie had just released his 25th album, Blackstar, just three days earlier, on his 69th birthday. His official website had recently posted new photos of him, in a smart suit and playfully yelling at the camera. The occasional news of what critic Paul Morley called Bowie’s “lively and continuous life,” especially in the decade after Bowie suffered a heart attack on stage in 2004, had been enough to reassure me and his millions. of fans who was still present. Not that he owed us anything, but a world that David Bowie was still in couldn’t be all bad. And now it was gone.
After the mind-blowing sadness of the past five years, the illusion that everything would go to waste when he died has at times felt more like a premonition. Five Years, written in 1971, imagines a population upset by the news – delivered by a “news guy” who “cried so hard their face was wet” – that “the Earth was really dying” and we would all be extinct in the middle. decade.
After all, waking up to the early news most mornings since that day in 2016 has sparked similar feelings. “My brain ached like a warehouse / I didn’t have room to spare,” Bowie sings as Ziggy, as if he’s already traveled back in time and seen the state of things. Writer Dan Fox, author of Pretentiousness and Limbo, two books on culture and creativity, recalls “listening to Five Years a month or two after Trump’s election and really feeling the apocalyptic gloom in that song.”
However, as he claims, Bowie still offers a way out of that discouragement. “He was the best art student of the 20th century,” says Fox. “He never stopped learning, he never stopped being curious. I think you can use their work as a model: don’t be afraid to admit ‘I don’t know’ and find someone who does. “
Curator Beth Greenacre, who managed Bowie’s art collection for 16 years until her death, told Harper’s Bazaar in 2016 that she “collected ideas, thoughts… they all fueled her life. He would look at an artist and lead him to another artist, which would lead him to a book, which would lead him to a theory, which would lead him to a philosophical text, which would then lead him back to another artist. “
That’s the thing: For Bowie, life was a series of encounters with people and things that made change possible, not a series of transactions designed to outperform other people. I have missed him more than ever since he died because, viewed as a whole, his life is a reproach to the philistinism, cynicism and bad faith that have come to dominate public life.
He wanted to keep learning and he wanted us to keep learning. Bowie shared reading lists, playlists, lyrics saturated with cultural allusions. In the words of composer Edwyn Collins, speaking in response to the news of Bowie’s death: “It was warm; you could walk with him in your head all day and he would comfort you. “
I’ve collected photos of Bowie since my teens – there’s little more compelling than looking at pictures of him in all his versions. It reminds you of what is possible and that no one else has the power to tell you what or who you should be at any stage.
The image of Bowie that moves me the most was taken in Austria in 1994, in the Gugging Artists House, then a gallery and a therapeutic residential hospital for artists outside Vienna. Bowie, 47 and on the verge of making one of his best albums, the quixotic Outside, with Brian Eno, is standing on a paved patio, his arm around Gugging’s resident senior artist. Oswald tschirtner, looking away from the camera, perhaps towards one of Tschirtner’s works of art.
They are both gaunt, thin, dramatically dressed, solemn and determined. You remember that Bowie wasn’t that tall, that he was shy, and how much he could dim his glare when he needed it. He remembers losing his older half brother, Terry Burns, who introduced Bowie to the jazz and beat poetry that illuminated his music, until his suicide, less than a decade earlier. Bowie and Tschirtner look like father and son, or even the same person a few decades apart.
What that image shows, and what I like most about Bowie, is the full beam of his humanity. His lasting gift is that he believed in all of us. (“Give me your hands / because you’re wonderful! Wonderful!” He sang, again as Ziggy, in 1972.) What it taught me, as a teenager desperately trying to avoid a particular, socially determined path, was that you you can inspect what’s given to you and you can reject it, reuse it, make it, and redo it all.
Because of this, I feel like I loved him, someone I was never close to meeting. It’s been five years since Bowie’s death and that feeling has never gone away. I remember being very young and asking my mother if she cried when Elvis died, having seen my parents shed tears when John Lennon was shot in 1980. The pop culture figures they grew up with had acted as a reservoir of hope and of a fundamental factor. belief in humanity.
“Oh yeah, I cried all day,” she replied. Now my own daughter asks me the same question about Bowie and I can’t answer it without crying. The most likely explanation for that is because, since his death, I have felt a little lost again, as I did as a child. Bowie was, and still is, a guide for lonely people desperate to connect with a dark constellation they know is there, but cannot see alone.
Musician and writer Nick Currie, also known as Momus, covered Bowie’s song. Where are we now? back in 2013 and immediately got a delighted response from the teacher: “That’s great!” Currie tells me that as a teenager in the 1970s, during Bowie’s phase of rapid changes in appearance, sound and style, “it seemed to grow with me, stretching with every step. His limbs were important: the kabuki suits, the unrealistically high-pitched robotic voice that sang about ball-breaking ultraviolence, the theme of insanity, the European romantic images of Heroes … And yet always so utterly beautiful. There is still a deep, deep wound in me from his disappearance. Bowie-shaped hole. “
Yet, Currie concludes, “it’s like I’ve accepted that what’s left of him is deep within me and many others. It has been distributed through all of us. It is not a dead legacy, it is something encouraging and creative, as it always was ”.
Many of us have spent the past five years wondering where he is when we really need him, but he provided more than enough comfort in his life to help us get through the rest of ours. The torrent of pain shared over the radio waves on the day of his death was spontaneous and, perhaps, unrepeatable. There was only one Bowie, but millions of us have changed our lives because of him. In the words of Paul Morley, he showed us all “the importance of disobedient and distinctive imaginative action,” if we just care to try.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism